Despite the proverbial suggestion of the title, bad things mostly happen to less-than-upstanding citizens in “Good People,” a capable crime caper that nonetheless disappoints, considering the flavorful talent involved. With off-kilter Danish genre specialist Henrik Ruben Genz (“Terribly Happy”) making his English-language debut from a script by “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” writer Kelly Masterson, it’d be reasonable to expect a few more blackened twists in the tale of a hard-up Yank couple (James Franco and Kate Hudson) dragged into the Cockney underworld after pocketing a stash of dirty money from their deceased tenant. Both stars are in agreeable if uncharacteristically muted form, doing little to distinguish Genz’s pic from any amount of formula-following filler in the same B-movie ballpark; commercially, “VOD People” is the more apt moniker for this multi-platform release.
If nothing else, “Good People” serves as a relatively novel entry in Franco’s wilfully unpredictable filmography: There’s a tendency among critics to refer to his more eccentric characterizations as feats of performance art, yet the affably weak-willed, plaid-clad everyman he plays here seems further outside his wheelhouse than most roles he takes on. The last time we saw Franco in this kind of pulpy programmer — last year’s Jason Statham vehicle “Homefront” — he was on methed-up, reptilian villain duty, and he’s having visibly less fun as the ostensible hero here. Still, with his affectations on hold, he projects the imperfect, fidgety decency of a John Garfield — not a bad match for material that at least nods to transplanted James M. Cain-style noir before taking off on an absurd action tangent.
In fact, Masterson’s screenplay is based on a 2008 novel by Chicago-based author Marcus Sakey, who specializes in blue-collar crime narratives set in and around his hometown. For reasons of funding, presumably, the film relocates the narrative to London, with Franco and Hudson as Windy City emigres Tom and Anna Wright, trying their luck in the British capital’s oversubscribed property development racket. The switch should work well enough, placing this ordinary pair even further out of their element when the chips are down, but is incompletely imagined: The London criminal world here isn’t even recognizable from the Cockney cartoons of Guy Ritchie. Only a tonier accent separates Tom Wilkinson’s dogged vice detective from a stock Hollywood gumshoe; a wood-paneled fleabag motel that serves as a temporary sanctuary to the couple feels more New Mexico than New Cross.
Quite why the Wrights, seeking a fresh start after losing everything in the U.S. economic crisis, chose to do so in one of the world’s most expensive cities is one of the film’s deeper mysteries. In a token nod to realism, they’re at least paying the price: Construction manager Tom has romantic dreams of renovating a derelict family property outside the city center, but it’s proving a financial sinkhole, while broody schoolteacher Anna requires IVF treatment that is beyond the couple’s means. Threatened with eviction from their ramshackle South London apartment, they receive a dubious gift from the gods when their shady sublet tenant Ben (Francis Magee) is found dead downstairs, with £220,000 in cash secreted in his studio.
Desperately reasoning that money is only made bad by those in possession of it, they hide the loot from suspicious cop Halden (Wilkinson, coasting through), who’s on the trail of the cross-Channel drug ring double-crossed by Ben. It’s not long before Tom and Anna are pinpointed by deranged Limey gangster Jack (Sam Spruell) and an urbane Parisian dealer (“The Intouchables” star Omar Sy) who goes by the unprepossessing name of Genghis Khan. The ensuing cat-and-mouse chase is swiftly paced but markedly short on surprises, culminating in an inevitable showdown at Tom’s rickety building site that plays like an especially grisly round of “Home Alone” for grown-ups. Between this and Antoine Fuqua’s simultaneously released “The Equalizer,” DIY power tools appear to be the good guys’ new weapons of choice — a down-home solution one might count as a marginal victory for the gun control lobby. “Guns are for pussies,” spits Hudson, in by far her feistiest moment of the film.
Tangy dialogue is in generally short supply, with the regional idiom barely in evidence. Sy gets the script’s most amusingly odd riff, channeling his historical namesake as he muses on his expanding criminal empire, but the charismatic Frenchman is otherwise given little to do but pick his teeth with sinister poise. Anna Friel is even more egregiously wasted in a throwaway best-friend role, though the film isn’t particularly beholden to its leads either. Franco and Hudson (a more inquisitive, empathic dramatic actress than is generally recognized) have a comfortable, unfussy chemistry together, and make some effort to probe the moral ambiguities of the script. They can’t, however, do much to enliven characters whose most distinctive quirk is their icky shared euphemism for sex — “sushi night,” incidentally.
Working outside his native tongue, Genz’s taste for semi-absurdist deadpan comedy doesn’t get much of an airing here. He does, on the other hand, bring a modicum of frowzy visual panache to proceedings, with an assist from Danish d.p. Jorgen Johansson’s rainy-day lensing and the tinnily thin, peelingly papered walls of Kave Quinn’s production design. In a film already experiencing some transatlantic identity issues, the helmer’s imprint of Scandi-noir style hardly feels out of place.